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Wednesday, October 22nd 2014

21:53

Tuesday Opry

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: musical

Believe it or not, I really wanted to post two entries tonight, this one on the Opry Concert and a conceptual one. Obviously, I underestimated how long it would take to prepare these pictures and get them properly situated.

Last night June and I went to the Grand Ole Opry house, just outside of Nashville, for Tuesday Night Opry, something we had not yet experienced, having always been there on either a Friday or Saturday night. On the weekends, one usually gets a number of the retirement-aged stars of a while back, along with hosts such as Porter Wagoner or Lorrie Morgan—and, of course, one or two current chart toppers. Tuesday night not so much. The Grand Ole Opry is actually a vastly elaborated live radio show on WSN, and last night the radio announcer, not a country musician, was the official host. The acts were mixed on style and quality. Each one got to do three pieces, except for the main attraction at the end of the show, who quite properly got to do twice as many.

Diamond RioA Leitmotif of this entry is to give a quick assessment of the question where "country" music is heading. Please don’t misunderstand, in my book you don’t have to be a country singer to be an outstanding singer/musician. My recent ravings about the BeeGees, CSN, and Billy Joel should have made that clear. It’s just that I hate to see the country genre disappear. I realize that my approval is neither highly sought for, nor should it be. But if I didn't express my opinions on my blog, I wouldn't have anything to write for either my own amusement or for that of my readers, who are finely attuned to sorting out the wheat from the chaff of my pronouncements.

I have at least one picture for each performer. From where we sat, using a telephoto lens provided the only means of getting any worthwhile photos at all, but the lighting was so low that most pictures did not turn out--not that I expected them to. Fortunately, with digital cameras, you can check and make adjustments as you go. So, by the time of the intermission, to my pleasant surprise, I had figured out that if I steadied my camera as best as I could and took a series of shots in a row, by sheer probability at least one of those shots would be fairly close to half-decent focus. God bless digital cameras! Still,there was no point in adding larger versions of most of the pictures here since I had stretched the possibility of getting a sharp image for most of them. I’ll mention the exceptions below.

First up was Diamond Rio, a good group to open such a program. They sounded amazingly upbeat and fresh. When they first came on the scene in 1991 (their very first recording was a #1 hit), others shared my view that they were pushing the limit of what should be called "country.” At this point, in contrast to more contemporary “country musicians,” they appear to be traditionalists.

Native Run

Next came Native Run, Rachel Beauregard and Bryan Dawley, whose mentioned credits include opening up for a number of well-known country artists. I would suspect that they may have a lengthy career as an opening act. Their sound was pretty much in the rock column. The only good picture I got of them was taken without the telephoto, but it captured the entire set-up, and you must click on it so that you will get a full view of the entire Opry if you've never been there. If you have, you still should because it's a cool picture that I think you will like. Note that huge screen showing Rachel in action.

 

Chase Bryant

Speaking of the loss of the “country” in “country music,” the next budding young artist on stage, Chase Bryant, had no recognizable “country” sound (at least to me) in his performance. My assessment was that Roy Acuff would have turned in his grave if he had heard these sounds in the Opry. I guess the country label moguls must know what the market is looking for, but to me it’s sad to see the Grand Ole Opry become the home of “market music.” There’s a place for it, but why does it have to swallow up its roots? Anyway, Chase has written some interesting pieces, and he has a clear voice. He has yet to find his niche, though I'm afraid his back-up group with their exaggerated contortions didn’t help his cause all that much either. Then again, for all that I know he may win twenty Grammies before his career is done. We curmudgeons do no have a vote.

Closing out the first half was the Grammy-winning blue grass group that calls itself the Del McCoury Band. Del M. has performed at the Opry for five decades, first as a member of Bill Monroe’s group and now heading up his own ensemble. Every one of his musicians, including his sons (mandolin and banjo), have numerous awards to their credit. They put on an impeccable show, and I wished they could have done a few more numbers (or the whole night, as far as I was concerned). Also, because they played under just plain white stage light, it was easier for me to get a good clear picture of them.

Del McCoury BandAfter an intermission—a relatively new innovation for the Opry—Lee Greenwood took the stage. He sounded as much like himself as ever. Obviously he had to do “God Bless the USA”; I guess it wouldn’t be a Lee Greenwood performance if he didn’t include that number. Everyone stood and cheered, needless to say.

Lee GreenwoodLee was followed by the Willis Clan. Well, not the entire Willis Clan, of course, but only the majority of the twelve children of the one Willis family. In the first group picture you see the six oldest brothers and sister; another brother was playing the drums in back, and several other siblings made short appearances, as, for example, the latest youngest sister of the bunch, who did a little dance. They played two Irish instrumental pieces; note the rather condensed version of the bag pipe, which—according to them—was exported by the Irish to Scotland and assumed a more inflated nature there. (I think the historic/cultural lines between Ireland and Scotland are a little more intertwined than that.) For their third (and last) number they tipped their proverbial hats to the well-known family act of the past, the von Trapp family, by singing their variation of “My favorite Things” from "The Sound of Music." Their rendition was rather animated and invigorating.

The Willis Clan

The Willis Clan

The Willis Clan

The Willis Clan

Then the star of the night was announced: Keith Urban. The applause and female screeching sounds made it clear that he was not entirely unknown nor without appeal. Let me go on record to say that he was good, and that his backup group was excellent. Let me also add that I have no idea why he has been classified as a country singer. "Urban" is his real name, so there's no intended play on words there. He was born in New Zealand and grew up in Australia, and looks vastly younger than the forty-seven years as of this coming Sunday.  In short, Keith Urban is extremely talented, listenable, and, according to June, "just oozes charm."

Keith UrbanKeith Urban's Bass Player

I know that it’s cool to carry your guitar fairly down on your body, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bass player hold his instrument at a level entirely below his belt. If doing so is more common than is familiar to me, I must not have gone to the right kind of concerts. And I promise that I won't try it.

I’m preparing some further thoughts on this experience in conjunction with whenever I get around to the next conceptual post.

Overall, the concert was good fun, but left me without any further help in answering George Jones’ question.

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Monday, October 20th 2014

23:27

At the Ryman

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: gruntled

Roy Acuff and Minnie PearlJune and I are once again south of our regular habitat, possibly the last time before the bitter winter hits with its four months of complete darkness, temperatures well below -80°F, and seemingly unending ice and snow.—Oh, wait! I got mixed up there for a moment. We don’t live at the North Pole, even though it may feel that way to me come January. We will have daylight, quite a bit of it compared to what they get 40 degrees of latitude north of our location. The temperatures may go below zero, though hopefully not as much as last winter, and, except for one year long ago (1816), winter has always come to an end in Indiana.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was going through a time of depression, which was triggered by a number of factors, only one of which was the cancellation of a trip, which would have been more of a professional character. Since we had already moved all appointments to later, the time was there, and we had already set aside some resources. So, June suggested that we could spend a few days in Nashville. Somehow she managed to persuade me that doing so would be a good plan. Well, you know that it was a very easy sell. This time the name "Nashville" refers to the big city in Tennessee, home of the Grand Ole Opry (GOO), in contrast to the small town in Indiana, where the Lil’ Opry has still not been rebuilt, which is our more frequent hide-out.

Today’s small agenda was to make sure that we can find our way to the Ryman Auditorium, which was the location of the GOO from 1942 to 1974. (The GOO is now held at the much larger Opry House, a little further outside of town.) As long as we were there, we took the guided backstage tour, which turned out to be quite interesting, thanks to a tour guide who spoke quite candidly about the various musicians who had played the Opry at the Ryman.

At the Ryman AuditoriumAfterwards, I did the awfully touristy thing of having my picture taken onstage at the microphone. At first I thought that I was being really shallow doing so, but then, when the moment came as the young lady said to go up to the designated place on the stage, it really hit me. Regardless of the contrived set-up, I was about to stand in the same place Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams, George Jones, .... we could go on and on ... have stood and played for the crowds. In contrast to other entertainers, so many country singers have not hesitated to let the outside world know of both their wounds and their recovery from them. I certainly wouldn’t use the word “sacred,” but I did have the feeling that there was something special about that space and that it was a privilege to stand there for a moment (at a price, of course). I took one of the guitars provided and sang a few lines of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and then held still for a better shot. I received the picture, but no digital media, so the picture here is my photograph of the commercial photograph. Please forgive me if the impulse of adding an enlarged picture may strike you as a little narcissistic. As I said in my FB post: For a moment or so, a fantasy had come to life, singing a Hank Williams tune on the stage of the Ryman. Kleist would have understood.

There’s a song that keeps popping up in my thoughts. George Jones sang it a couple of decades ago: “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?” Sadly, I don’t know whether anyone is or can. Maybe I’ll be a little more optimistic a few days from now.

A fact that should not be passed over too lightly is that country music and gospel have traditionally gone hand-in-hand. Numerous country musicians have related meaningful testimonies of their faith in Christ, often after they had seen their lives swim down the river of alcohol or similar issues. The Ryman began as a church and has retained that character in its furnishings.  There still are stained-glass windows, and the seating does not consist of plush theater seats, but good old hard wooden pews, as you can still find them in small country churches. My point is very simply that I fear as country music is losing more of its traditional form, that aspect of this musical idiom may get buried as well.

I’ll try to post at least a small entry as often as I can this week. Maybe I’ll get to some more conceptual matters as well, but I’m not promising.

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Thursday, October 16th 2014

21:01

Omega Consistency

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: okay

Yet another entry that I started several days ago, but hope to finish and post today (Thursday). I began it on Tuesday evening, but I got too tired to finish it. Then yesterday I had The Stomach Ache. That’s right, not a stomach ache, but its real Platonic Form, of which all other stomach aches are but feeble imitations. Okay, I’m totally exaggerating, but it was somewhat unpleasant, and, late in the afternoon, when I realized that the pain wasn’t going vanish by itself, June and I drove to a walk-in clinic [sic], and the wonderful staff there took care of it. And that’s where I shall leave that subject, except to reassure you that it was nothing serious.

*****

Somewhere in our house, I’m quite sure, I have a copy of a biography of Kurt Gödel, the famous logician/mathematician. But I can’t find it. Maybe it will never show up, in which case, I may need to leave the question of whether it is still on the premises undecided. I know that my search has not been complete, but I’m not sure if it will ever be. — If you didn’t get the attempt at humor in the foregoing, don’t worry about it. It wasn’t all that funny. Let me just explain that Kurt Gödel brought up a famous theorem, one part of which stated that every advanced system of logic must contain sentences for which it cannot be determined whether they are true (undecidability), and—the flip side of the coin—that no such system of logic can be used to deduce all possible sentences that it contains (incompleteness).

Speaking of Gödel, the proof for his theorem includes a concept called omega-consistency (hereafter: ω-consistency), and it occurred to me that my search for the book provides a wonderful illustration of this concept. It’s a notion that I find interesting by itself, apart from Gödel’s use of it. Please note, then, that what I’m addressing here is not Gödel’s theorem per se, but an assumption that played a role in his proof of the theorem. To make this illustration work properly, it helps to assume that the house in which June and I live extends to infinity in at least one dimension, whether length, width or height makes no difference, except to the person cleaning it. (If we could afford such a large house, we also could afford outside help.) It is not necessary to assume that the house will exist forever or that I have an infinite life span, though it might make the illustration a little more memorable, and it would stress the significance of the idea behind it.

Let us say that I have good reason to believe that there is a place in my house in which the book is hidden. However, whenever I check any specific place, such as the shelf with logic books in my library or under the living room couch, I do not find the book there. Still, I continue to be convinced that it has to be somewhere in the house. This is ω-consistency. The more general, abstract statement is true; the book is somewhere in the house. But whenever it is applied to specific spots, the statement that the book is there invariably turns out to be false.

In contrast to ω-consistency, “simple" consistency--the kind that we usually have in mind--allows me to assume that on the basis of the statement that the book is somewhere in the house, there is a specific place (we’ll give it the arbitrary name a), where the book is located and that I will eventually find it. Under ω-consistency we cannot make that assumption.

For those who are interested, let me express this idea with a little formal symbolism. Undoubtedly you remember from whenever you studied algebra that the letter x is usually a variable that stands for an “unknown number.” For our purposes, let’s be a little more general and say that variables represent unknown items, including unknown numbers where appropriate. Think of a variable as an empty bucket into which some sort of content can be poured. In formal language, we can say that a variable can be satisfied or instantiated with a constant. A constant can still just be named by a single letter, but now it stands for one and only one specific item. So, here is the simple statement that there is some unknown place where the book is located.

(∃x)Lx

(∃x) stands for “there is”; Lx  means “x is the location of the book.”

There is an “x” such that x is the location of the book.

From there we can substitute a constant for the variable and say that, consequently, there must be a specific place where the book is located and, in order to keep track of this fact, we give this hypothetical place the arbitrary name a. (Note that if I were also looking for my glasses, I could set it up in the same way, but I couldn’t use a again; I would have to use b or another letter because I cannot assume that the book and my glasses must be at the same location. )

When working under the assumption of ω-consistency, things get a little more complex.

Let us continue to insist that we know that the book is somewhere in the house,

(∃x)Lx is true,

but none of the possible locations are panning out for us. Putting it in formal terms, where a, b, c, … n stand for locations in the house,

La is false; Lb is false; Lc is false; … Ln is false.

Here is where it is important that we include infinity. A statement, such as (∃x)Lx cannot be negated by a counterexample, unless we have exhausted all possible candidates for x (its domain), and that’s not possible if the domain is infinite in size. To be sure, it would take only one constant that satisfies the variable x for (∃x)Lx to be true. But ω-consistency is defined as a case in which we cannot find such an instance. By stipulating an infinitely large house (and even if you endowed me with an infinite life span), I could never consider my search to be complete under those restraints.

Consequently, under the stipulation of ω-consistency (∃x)Lx can remain to be true, while La, Lb, Lc, … Ln,  viz. all instantiations of x that are known to us, turn out to be false.

But is it true? It is always a good idea to undertake a reality check, but this question is not the right one to ask here. ω-consistency is a logical or mathematical device, and as such it cannot be true or false, just as multiplication is neither true nor false, but 5x3=15 is true, and 2x6=11 is false. If we are concerned with reality, we need to ask whether it’s applicable. And then the answer is “yes.” An “existential” statement (one preceded by (∃x)—“there is”) that we know to be true on other grounds cannot be falsified by an absence of specific observed instances.

Please let me stick with math a little longer. The set of natural numbers {0, 1, 2, 3 …n} is infinite. Numbers have properties; they may be prime, divisible by two, the square of another number, the cube root of another number, and so forth. For a long list of properties that numbers can have, see Robert Munafo’s Collection. I happened upon that site as I was looking for the details of the example below and found not only what I was looking for, but lots of further information. It's a website written in a personal tone that can easily steal your afternoon if you're not scared of weird numbers.

Anyway, we cannot rule out the possibility that a certain number may have a certain property just because we have not seen that property in any other number before. Some numbers that exhibit certain mathematical functions don’t pop up until we enter a realm so remote that we can write them in scientific notation, but cannot really comprehend them.

So, in that spirit, here’s a mind boggler, at least from where I sit. The Riemann Hypothesis is quite possibly as well-known as it is frequently misrepresented on TV shows. (“The significant zeroes of the zeta function have real value 1/2” just doesn’t emanate the aura of non-Euclidean space. Riemann also made contributions to the latter topic, but that's a different matter.) The famous hypothesis has to do with the distribution and density of prime numbers on the ladder of integers. Regardless of how high up you look, the primes never stop coming, and there is a formula that gets fairly close to predicting where they will appear. This formula asserts that Frank and Stan are roughly of equal height. Well, okay, it’s obviously math, and it's a whole lot more technical; in precise terms it says that the prime-counting function π(x)* is a close approximation of the logarithmic integral function li(x), or π(x) ≈ li(x). However, unless you already know what those things are, we might as well for a moment stick with calling them Frank and Stan, two growing boys, whose height is measured rather frequently. The point is that for a very long time, even though their heights match each other very closely, Frank is almost consistently just a tiny bit shorter than Stan.  π(x) < li(x). But there comes a point when Frank has a growth spurt, and now he is almost always that little fraction taller than Stan. In the actual application, there comes a point at which the ratio is reversed and the prime counting function, π(x), runs a just little larger than the log-integration function, li(x). Sticking with the math now, the question is where on the number line we might find the point that this crossover actually happens. Using the numbers supplied by Munafo, a mathematician named Stanley Skewes established in 1933 that the number could not be any higher than 10101034.  You might find the magnitude of that number highly astounding: a 10 followed by more than 100,000 zeroes. But we now know that Skewes’ estimate was way too high. According to Munafo, “In 2005 numerical techniques were used to determine the actual value of the crossover, 1.397162914×10316. " Of course this number is quite a bit less than Skewes' original guess, but it still is an unimaginable number. We can say it and know what it means, but we cannot “conceive” it or picture any kind of representation of it. Still, the result is meaningful.

Now, if I had been trudging my way along the number line while applying the two functions, I think that I probably would have given up looking for a decisive crossover after the first googol  (10100) or so, quite likely even a whole lot earlier. Yes, undoubtedly much, much earlier if I ever even got started. But other people have had more efficient methods and discovered this switch. So, now we can be pretty certain that,  a change in the relationship between the two functions occurs on the number line roughly around 10316. Why does that happen? We don’t know. Numbers have their own personalities and quirks. They represent one more instance where we see the creativity of their Maker at work, just as much as we can see his hand in the beauty of nature.  

There’s an obvious lesson for the skeptic here. We can put it into easy terms: Don’t be too fast with your conclusions based on what you have not seen. Nietzsche’s famous argument that, given an infinite amount of time, all events in history and in a person’s life must recur over and over again, is flawed because it renders the infinite finite, whereas the set of real numbers can never be exhausted. (Further elaboration on request.) However, the idea that, after working our way along the line of integers for an unimaginable distance and then encountering something that had not been the case before, is real and instantiated. To close briefly, our own few personal, empirical observations cannot possibly be sufficient to rule out the reality of transcendence that we find in God.

*****

Oh, by the way, I found the biography of Gödel a little while ago. It was right where it belonged in the case of logic books. I had looked right at it, but not recognized it. However, we'll leave any further research on that phenomenon for some other time.

*****

*The symbol π does at least double duty in mathematics. Here it is the name of a function in the context of the prime number theorem and has nothing to do with the well-known value of 3.14… in geometry and other areas of math.

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Friday, October 10th 2014

22:40

Zacchaeus in the Tree

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: holding on

So, there I was this afternoon, drawing a picture of what eventually was supposed to be Zacchaeus in the Sycamore tree. As I was working on making the branches and twigs, it occurred to me all of a sudden that I probably should look up Sycamore trees online, just to make sure that I wasn’t entirely in fantasy land with my intended depiction. I‘ll let you decide how close I came, though I decided I wasn’t going to aim for realism;  I would just draw the tree as I wanted to.

But then another thought came up. Someone who is versed in pseudo-Freudian psychology could analyze my tree for what it reveals concerning my subconscious, perhaps by referring to the “house-tree-person” test and its rules of interpretation. (No, I’m obviouslynot going to link to it.) Oh well, if anyone is so inclined, have at it! Just remember, I didn’t put the little man in the tree; that’s from the Bible story below. If I say so myself, he came out pretty well, given my frugal artistic ability. And if what you see is embarrassing, let me know privately, please!

*****

Moving on to another topic, isn’t the following a common experience? In the last blog entry I wrote about leaving difficult matters in the hands of God. So, the Lord is asking (so to speak), “Do you really mean that, Win?” From my perspective at least, a number of things have crashed down on me over the last few days. Someone else may have seen nothing or perhaps just observed those things come softly wafting down to earth. Regardless, it has felt like crashing to me, thereby triggering a fairly solid bout of depression. I mean, all-in-all, things going wrong shouldn’t make you depressed; they probably should make you sad if you have common reactions. It’s when the sadness takes on a life of its own and puts you into a vicious circle that depression takes over. The apostle Paul found himself in that state several times (1 Thess. 3:5; 2 Cor. 1:8-10). I think I’m in the process of emerging from it, I think, but I also thank you for your prayers.

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 19:1-10

vv. 9-10: "Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus told him, “because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore TreeObviously there was no way that I could read this passage or write about it without “Zacchaeus was a wee little man” running through my mind. Wait! Why am I saying running? It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s not so much running as orbiting through my brain.

Anyway, it’s a good little song, and it’s a great story that culminates with Jesus declaring that he has come “to seek and to save the lost.” That would be those who are rejected and considered dispensable, the ones who know how far they have fallen short of God’s expectations. Nevertheless, Jesus seeks them out.  

We can contrast this sentence with Paul’s description of our fallenness before we come to Christ: There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God (Rom. 3:11). Regardless of whether we consider ourselves Arminians, Wesleyans, or Calvinists, we all believe that God made the first move and sought us out to become his children.

Just as hard as it is for me to reflect on this story without humming “Zacchaeus,” I also find it impossible to avoid the glaring contrast between this episode and the one in the last chapter concerning the so-called rich young ruler. Or, for that matter, not to tie this story into the parable of the two men praying in the temple. I don’t think that it’s unrealistic to believe that Luke placed those narratives in close proximity so that we would see the differences. The ruler of the synagogue in the last chapter was among the religious elite of his day. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, was considered pond scum. The tax collectors of the day were working for the pagan Romans who had occupied the land. And, if that wasn’t enough, they were also well known for their dishonesty. They were obligated to keep a schedule according to which they would turn over a certain sum of money to the Romans. They had to raise these funds from the people, and they were entitled to increase the amount somewhat, with the proceeds constituting their income. Apparently, it was all-too-easy for tax collectors to increase their net gain with impunity and become quite rich in the process.

Zacchaeus had worked his way up the official ladder, being designated a chief tax collector, and quite a bit of money had gathered in his coffers. It seems pretty clear to me, however, that he did not feel entirely good about his life. Obviously, there are some interesting aspects to this story on a purely superficial level. Jesus, the celebrity, was walking through Jericho, and Zacchaeus, being of small stature, climbed a tree in order to get a look at Jesus over other peoples’ heads.

But why was he so desperate to see Jesus? I think the answer is given by how quick he was to welcome Jesus into his house and to use the occasion to repent. I don’t think that we’re going out on a limb by inferring that the man was guilt-ridden. (Oh no, I just recognized the horrible pun in the process of proof-reading. I’ll leave it stand, though.) Zacchaeus would have been familiar with Jesus in his role as a popular healer. But then Jesus turned to him personally and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, thereby doing him a great honor according to Middle Eastern customs to this day, he realized that he had found the person who could make him righteous again.

He had wanted to see Jesus. We don’t know whether he expected Jesus to see him, or whether he expected anyone among the crowd to notice him sitting on a branch of the tree or, for that matter, to care. But Jesus did see him and not only called him down, but simultaneously stated that he would spend the night at the house of Zacchaeus. (Apparently nobody had made reservations for Jesus at a place in Jericho. That reminds me of an adventure in Jericho a number of years ago, which I may have already written about some other time, but, if not, it doesn’t fit in here particularly.)

The crowd went into shock, both individually and collectively. They had been parading along with Jesus cheering him on. There was that little unpleasantness with the blind man, but that had turned out great because Jesus made a miracle, as everyone had hoped. But now he had just said that he would take his lodgings with a—it’s hard to believe, but there’s no getting around it—a—could this really be true—a tax collector. Woosh! A sudden chill swept through the air. Jesus was going to stay with a genuine, certified sinner.

Well, sensitivity to public opinion would not have been an asset to anyone pursuing the career of a tax collector, and Zacchaeus didn’t seem pay attention to this reaction. He came down from the tree as a happy man, and he declared to Jesus that he would make good on any wrongful transactions as well as give half of his possessions to the poor. —Ah, wasn’t the price for salvation all of your possessions?— No, as I explained, that wasn’t the point when Jesus stated the matter to the synagogue official. Salvation can’t be bought. The idea was to show unreserved commitment to God, not the exact sum you would give to charity.

Jesus saw that Zacchaeus’ conversion was real. Partially acknowledging Zacchaeus, and perhaps also partially in rebuke of the crowd, many of whom would still have been in earshot, he declared: “Salvation has come to this house.” And, just to make it clear, he added that “he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Ouch! How that must have stung! We have seen how folks like the rich official took great pride in following the Law of God, thereby cashing in on their privilege of being one of Abraham’s descendants. But Zacchaeus had the same ancestor. Remember that we are still at a time prior to Pentecost, and the mystery of salvation for the Gentiles as Gentiles had not yet become disclosed, though Jesus was frequently hinting at it. But here he confined himself to the current context, making a sufficiently controversial statement to set the crowd reeling. “He too is a son of Abraham.”

What the people did not yet know would become evident not long thereafter. “[Abraham] is the father of us all in God’s sight!” Paul declaims in Rom. 4:16b, 17a; see also Gal. 4:14. And, if the division between Jews and Gentiles does not interfere with God’s acceptance of you, neither does your state as a sinner, as shown by Zacchaeus. No one is so far from God that he or she is beyond his reach.

 

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Sunday, October 5th 2014

20:09

A Blind Man's Faith

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: George McFly-like

George McFlyFeeling fairly good physically. No headache for three days now. Of course, now I have to go get my shingles shot, but I haven't heard from anyone that they have reacted to it. Come to think of it, I know a number of people who have had shingles, but actually I'm not sure I know anyone of whom I could say with certainty that they had the shingles immunization. Presumably medical personnel would have had a shingles shot, but no one has told me. I am aware of the fact that the shingles vaccine does not totally prevent everyone who has received it from getting shingles; it's supposed to lower the probability and, I guess, the intensity. If anything dramatic should occur, I'll let you know.

It’s definitely October. For a number of years we’ve managed to keep away from October for a while by escaping to warmer weather, only to return to take it on the chin by November. This year, if we still do wind up heading anywhere this month, the distance and length will be much shorter than, say several weeks in South East Asia. I’ll tell you more once I’m sure that something has come together. Unfortunately some other plans have fallen apart.

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 18:35-43

v. 38: So he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Travel map Galilee to JerusalemWhen Jesus made his occasional trips from Galilee to Jerusalem, he was likely to go through Samaria, the direct and shorter route. Most Jews at the time avoided Samaria and took a much longer trip by crossing the Jordan, trekking for a short time through the area called Decapolis, traversing Perea southward, crossing the Jordan somewhere in the vicinity of Jericho, and finally completing the last leg of their journey by walking uphill to Jerusalem. Decapolis was a loose federation of ten (more or less) cities that were relatively independent of each other, though under the strict supervision of Rome. The one thing that they had in common was that in various ways they promoted Hellenistic Greek and Roman culture and religion. Perea, on the other hand, was nominally Jewish during the time of Jesus. It was the name of the region located on the East Bank of the Jordan, governed by the Roman puppets Herod the Great (the baby killer) and subsequently by his son, the tetrarch Herod Antipas. Many centuries earlier, the regions that were then called Decapolis and Perea had been home to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh, but way back in 732 BC the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser (744-727 BC) had carried them off to captivity. Nowadays, most of Decapolis/Perea belongs to the Kingdom of Jordan and a snippet of it goes to Syria.

On this last trip, Jesus chose to follow this route, and his entry into Jericho was a big event for the city. There was a large crowd surrounding him, presumably shouting their welcomes and accolades to him. A blind man, sitting just a little out of the way, inquired what was going on. Someone gave him a quick answer. “Jesus the Nazarene is passing by.”

Please don’t confuse “Nazarene” with “Nazarite.” The latter would have been a man during Old Testament times who had taken a temporary vow of holiness and would abstain from having his hair cut, drinking beer, or consuming anything connected to grapes, including table grapes, juice, or wine. “Nazarene” simply refers to Jesus’ original home city of Nazareth, identifying him as a Galilean. Here in Judea this distinction was important to the population who at times thought of themselves as just a little better than their relatives to the north.

Apparently the blind man understood something that the rest of the crowed missed. He wanted Jesus to cure his blindness, but he did not address Jesus with the title someone had just mentioned to him. He did not shout, “Jesus of Nazareth, have mercy on me!” His call was “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The term, Son of David, was one of the many with messianic implications. So, while the rest of the crowd was excited that Jesus the Nazarene, well-known preacher and healer—perhaps best known for his feeding miracles—had come to Jericho, the blind man had the “insight” that the messiah had come. And so he kept calling “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

A number of people got irritated with the blind man; perhaps they thought that he was spoiling the party. Not that they would have objected to witnessing a solid miracle or two, but this blind man was pushing his own problems just a little too much and was creating a racket that others found annoying. “Alright already! Everybody has heard you—lots of times. But your behavior is taking the joy out of it for others. Would you please quiet down; we can hardly hear what the Nazarene is saying. You’re not the only person here who needs him.”

Regardless of how the people admonished him, the blind man did not let them deter him. He just kept calling for the “Son of David” to show him his mercy.

It is easy to lose track of individuals in a large crowd, but it seems that Jesus was frequently aware of special people in the throng around him. In this case, that point was obviously coupled with the fact that his unceasing cry for help was not easy to miss. Consequently, Jesus called him over, and some people led him into his presence.

“So, tell me, what exactly do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. After all, “have mercy on me” could have referred to any number of items.

The astute blind man clearly did not mince any words. “I want to see!” No qualifications, no false humility, no attempts at bargaining, as in “If you will give me sight, I promise to …” No suggestions to Jesus how he should do so. Just plain and simple, “I want to see.” The man was convinced that a) he had a problem, namely blindness, and b) that Jesus could fix it. Now that he had Jesus’ attention, he could just leave the matter in his hands.

I use a phrase along the line of “leaving matters in God’s hands” quite frequently on this blog. By now, it almost writes itself. And yet, what a difficult thing to put these words into action (or, perhaps better into non-action): to turn something over to Jesus and then let him decide if, when, and how to do something about it.

So many times, we want to give God incentive. “If you do this we will praise you from the roof tops, and so forth.” Aren’t we supposed to do that already, at least figuratively?

“If you’ll answer my prayer, God, I promise that I will …” If God is pleased by your doing X, then you should be doing X already.”

At other times, we make suggestions to God how he could answer a prayer. “Lord, please guide the surgeon’s hand,” and we might as well add, “help the anesthesiologist get the right dosages, and help the nurses to keep track of drainages, etc.” God knows what's involved and doesn't need our specific guideline. But it's just fine if you want to tell him about all the issues that could go wrong.

So, I'm not giving a criticism here. God is not offended by our prayers, even if they reflect a naïve theology. You can’t surprise God with your prayers; he already knows what’s going on in your heart and mind. Please, I beg you, pray what you’re thinking, even if your prayers seem as silly to you as mine do to me at times. It’s a wonderful experience when you learn to be honest with yourself and God. (Which one comes first?, I wonder.)

What I’m talking about only becomes a problem if we get the idea into our heads that our attempts to “persuade” God rather than just unburdening ourselves to him are more likely to produce “results.” God does not work that way. What Jesus saw in the blind man was unwavering dependence on him, not a better technique or religiosity. The man recognized that Jesus was the messiah, and that, if anyone could take his darkness away, it would be this Son of David. And Jesus told him, “Your faith has healed you.”

Let me quickly emphasize that Jesus was not giving a full elaboration on prayer and faith here. “Faith” by itself does nothing. In fact, “faith” by itself is nothing. “Faith” is only something when it is either “faith that …” or “faith in …” So, Christ’s statement fully expressed to my theological satisfaction (which undoubtedly was of no concern whatsoever to him then and is not now) would have been. “Your faith in me as the one who will have mercy on you has healed you.” I’m making a deal out of this distinction only because the world is full of people who celebrate “faith” as though it were a thing in itself that in some mystical way does things for us. They believe that even if you don’t believe in God or in false gods, if you have “faith” that’s all it takes. Jesus was saying nothing of the kind.

The blind man was healed, and glorified God.  The crowd was excited, and—maybe taking their cue from this man—praised God.

Now I’m going to read something into the text that’s not there; it’s a hypothesis based only on my picture of the blind man and his explicit faith, which Jesus commended. What would he have done if for whatever reason he would not have received his sight at that point. My feeling (and it’s nothing more than that) is that he very well may have sat down again at his regular place and said to himself. “Okay, maybe next time.” That’s the position we often find ourselves in, and it’s not easy to continue to have unreserved faith in God. Then again, there’s no one bigger or better to have faith in than the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

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Friday, October 3rd 2014

23:40

The Resurrection is Coming!

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Headache-free!
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Hawaii-Five-O

Gretchen Passantino CoburnGretchen Passantino Coburn, RIP. Back in 2006, at one of the first meetings of the ISCA executive committee, before there actually even was an ISCA officially, Norm Geisler and Chad Meister talked about editing an anthology that would be dedicated to Bob and Gretchen Passantino. I must admit that I did not know who these people were, but heard that they had carried on a solid ministry in Christian apologetics. I happily supplied my chapter on “The Cosmological Argument.” I found out that by that time, Bob had already passed away, and Gretchen had remarried to Patrick Coburn and continued with the ministry, Answers in Action. I got to know Gretchen by way of Facebook, and it took me a while to make the connection that she was the Gretchen to whom the book was dedicated. She always exuded a positive attitude of trust and reliance in Christ, even when things went bad, and whatever she said was sure to supply encouragement. Although I’m sure Gretchen is delighted to be in the presence of the Lord, I will miss her here on earth, and I'm sure that there are myriads of people who have known her better and will miss her even more.

*****

Ducktor stepping out of the donut holeYesterday (Thursday) was the first day after a headache that had lasted--I lost count--eight or nine days, and it has continued below threshold level all day today (Friday). By Wednesday it had metamorphosed into a migraine, so I figured that it just might respond to an Imitrex shot at that point. (In case you haven’t read earlier posts, I consider myself to be the poster child for Imitrex). I called Dr. B’s office, who promptly called in the order to our local pharmacy. Unfortunately, they were out of Imitrex. “We’ll have it for you tomorrow,” they said. Great! Another night with this headache. But then on Thursday my head started to get better.

Still, the smart thing to do seemed to be to go to the store and pick up the injections, just in case. That’s when I had another surprise, this time a good one. If you know anything about Medicare, you are probably aware of the fact that each year begins with a limit on how much it will pay for your medications according to the phase 1. I usually reach it in April or May. Then you are on level 2, or, as it is popularly known, the donut hole. During this time, the insurance pays about ten percent, and the patient must come up with the rest, thousands of dollars over the next few months in cases like mine. If you’ve spent enough, you get to move on to level three, at which point you pay very little, even less than the original copay on the first level. I had been in the donut hole for quite a while now, so, as I was going to the drug store, I was contemplating at which level I would have to tell them that I could not pay for the medicine. $300? $400? $500? To my delight, the pharmacy technician brought out the bag and mentioned a number very much smaller than those. Apparently I have crossed the donut hole for this year, a reasonable conclusion considering how much we have had to pay so far, and I am extremely thankful.  

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 18:31-34

v. 34:They understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

As I mentioned last time, it is only appropriate that, after Jesus had given another speech establishing the impossibility for us to attain God’s standards of righteousness, he should once again predict his impending death. He referred to himself as the Son of Man, a messianic title. He declared that he would be 1) turned over to the Gentiles; 2) mocked; 3) insulted; 4) spit on; 5) flogged; 6) killed; and, finally, 7) resurrected. He spelled it all out, but his disciples did not understand what he was talking about.

And who can blame them? Things were continuing to go pretty well, it would appear. Even though Jesus had been predicting his death off and on, it does not look as though he had taught them what his death would really mean. Eventually they would get it, not because of experiencing the resurrected Christ, but also because of a significant sentence in what Jesus was saying.

Everything that is written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished.

The disciples had yet to make the connection between various passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g. Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22.

Eventually, unless the Lord returns first or we all die of old age, we may eventually get to chapter 24 in Luke (the last one). There we will read that Jesus was accompanying two disciples to Emmaus after his resurrection, and he kept them from recognizing him. They were quite depressed about the death of Jesus on the cross. But the Lord straightened them out.

He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (vv. 25-27).

Finally, after he had broken bread with them, he allowed them to see who he was and promptly vanished. But now they understood.

So they said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?” (v. 32)

One cannot understand the New Testament without the Old. The case for Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, is also strongly supported by other apologetic arguments, but such arguments would mean little were it not for the fact that he is identified as the one who fulfilled the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Sometimes Christians read only the New Testament because it seems more applicable to them. However, in order to know God better and more fully, as well as to understand more about Christ and his mission, it is imperative that we be familiar with the Old Testament.

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Monday, September 29th 2014

14:41

Sell all you have!

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: headachy again
  • IN THE BACKDROP: neighbors' puppies

We have returned from our quick trip up to Michigan where we were a part of the memorial service for June’s mom. We drove up Friday and came back yesterday, Sunday. I don’t know how one would comment on a memorial service, so I shall skip any further description. (For a possible, though not recommended, way of doing so, see the beginning of Albert Camus’s, The Stranger.)

June and I rode with Seth in his van. On the way up, Seth and I had fun with the logic puzzles that Raymond M. Smullyan is included in his Beginner’s Guide to Mathematical Logic, a book that I am currently plodding through when I’m trying to take my mind off other things. A long, long time ago, I won’t tell you when, Seth studied logic as a part of his home schooling. I’ll give you a hint about his age at the time; yesterday was his birthday and he turned 38, and this would have been about 23 years ago. (See, you can do math!) I trust that my former students have fond memories of LogiCola, the software authored by Harry Gensler, S.J. to go with his text book. We had Seth work through the LogiCola disc, and the only time that he needed any help from me was when it came to the different systems of modal logic (Gensler mentions four of them: T, B, S4, and S 5). This distinction is, as far as I can tell, too little-known among casual users of modal logic. Anyway, that entertaining conversation made the time fly.

During the informal visitation period prior to the actual memorial service, I thought that I would surprise nephew Michael, whose birthday is today, with something that I had read on Gödel’s theorem, a topic on which we had written the paper together a number of years ago. Specifically, it was J. Barkeley Rosser’s version of proving the theorem, known as Rosser’s trick, which eliminates some of the assumptions that Gödel made. Of course, Michael already knew all about that and more, but that was great. I really enjoy just being able to talk to him about something that I have learned, and his corrections and additions are helpful, too. Happy Birthday, Michael!

I might mention that I’ve been living with one of those annoying five-day (hopefully) headaches again (not a migraine). I’m really hoping to get past it because it’s not easy to do close-up work on the computer in that state. It’s fine to dictate by way of the Dragon, as I’m doing here, but when it comes to things like editing a whole number of footnotes and converting them to in-line references, which is the most urgent project on my list for today, the strain tends to perpetuate the headache.

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 18:18-29

v. 27:He replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."

Please let me clarify a point that I’m sure I’ve stated several times before, and that I expect to repeat a few more times. Jesus taught the standards of righteousness which God expects of us, extended to their furthest logical conclusions. Much of the time he was speaking from the context in which his audience was still living, which was the Law as revealed in the Old Testament; the gospel of his atonement had to wait until he had made the atonement, though he pointed toward it. We see this approach illustrated particularly in Matthew 5, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount. Nobody can fulfill everything that Jesus brought up there as necessary for reconciliation with God, and thus he prepared the people for the need for his substitutionary atonement.

Our current story also is an example of this aspect of Christ’s teachings. Only when we have realized that God’s standards are so high that we cannot keep them, can his death on the cross really become meaningful for us. It was not just a way for God to show us that he loves us, or a convenience God provided for those who need a little extra help in helping themselves. Having shown us the insufficiency of our own righteousness, Jesus took our sins on himself, died for our sake, and then gave us his righteousness as a gift.

In this episode, a man who was a leader in his synagogue came up to Jesus and asked him what precisely he must do in order to inherit eternal life. Note how he phrased that request. How does one go about “inheriting” anything? Well, one must be an heir, and usually, there is nothing that one actually does in order to become an heir; it just happens if someone who has bequeathed you an inheritance passes away. So, it would seem that this synagogue official was really asking what he must do in order to earn eternal life, and it is in that mode (again: the framework of the Law) that Jesus responded to him.

As a quick aside, in the time period in which we are now living subsequent to Christ’s death and resurrection, we are privileged to know some things that the man could have had no idea of, namely that the concept of an “inheritance” has actually received greater meaning. In Galatians 4:1-7 we read that, when we now receive Christ by faith and are justified, we do, in fact, become God’s children and thereby become his heirs.

The answer that Jesus gave to the man was in keeping with the Old Testament Law, not yet the gospel: “Keep the commandments!” Jesus quickly enumerated five items out of the Decalogue: not to commit adultery, murder, steal, or lie, and to honor one’s parents. Apparently those instructions were not what’s the man wanted to hear. They were elementary for him, and, though no person is sinless, we can accept his assertion that he had at least tried his best to keep all of them for his entire life. Still, for some reason he must have thought there must be more; otherwise there would not have been a point to his question.

He was right. To make yourself totally righteous in God’s eyes, you must do more than just keep the rules; you must devote your entire being to im, including everything you own and everything that is closest to you. And it was quite obvious that this man was tied to his wealth. So, Jesus raised the bar and said, and I paraphrase, “Okay, if you’ve done all of that, then that’s pretty good. There’s only one other thing that you have to do. You need to sell everything that you have, give it to the poor, and become my follower.” Jesus clearly hit the target because the man turned aside and wept. He was willing to fulfill the basic commandments of the law, but he was not willing to commit himself to Christ. (Maybe he would do so later; some people speculate that this “rich young ruler” may have been Saul of Tarsus, later known as the apostle Paul).

Jesus then remarked on the difficulty of a rich person entering the kingdom of God. The underlying assumption is that the rich people to whom Jesus was referring were ones for whom their wealth was a hindrance to a full commitment to him. If we read what Jesus says here as though he were simply saying that only those who don’t own anything, and, thus, only those who are materially poor, can receive eternal life, this would be a very shallow misunderstanding of what Jesus was getting at. God’s standard of righteousness for any hypothetical self-salvation demands that we may not put anything ahead of him, regardless of whether it is material acquisition or anything else that we might treasure.

This passage ends with Jesus saying that we must even be willing to put family relationships underneath his Lordship. Now, this statement, even interpreted within the context of the Law, does not mean that it is right to neglect any of our family obligations. In Mark 7:11-13a, Jesus repudiated the ongoing practice of some people to take resources that they should have given to their relatives and to pass them on to the temple fund instead. The apostle Paul asserts in 1 Timothy 5:8, a verse that I quote quite frequently: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, that is his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

However, there are many occasions when it’s not a matter of obligation or responsibility but simply the desire to lose comfort or avoid conflict that leads some people to reject or deny Christ. Furthermore, we can undoubtedly compose a very long list of the many other things that might interfere with our total commitment to God. Whatever the obstacle may be, the total package of divine righteousness required for salvation comes down to the demand that we should be willing to renounce all of it.

The people who heard Jesus talk that way were understandably puzzled. If this was the case, then it appeared to be impossible for anyone to get into the kingdom of God. Neither the people who were tied to their wealth nor, as Jesus clarified further on, anyone else who was letting anything stand in the way of their commitment to Christ, would qualify for eternal life.

They asked, “Then who can be saved?”

That’s a good question, and the correct answer is: “Nobody!”  Not on those grounds.

In his response, Jesus acknowledged that it is impossible for human beings to satisfy the conditions for salvation. However, he added that what is impossible for us, is possible for God.

I can’t imagine that the people who heard Jesus at that time would have had a clear understanding of the reality toward which Jesus was pointing them because it was (and still is) so overwhelmingly different from our usual way of thinking. Most likely, insofar as they accepted Christ’s words, they probably them as saying that with the help of God they would be able to perform the required works of righteousness, which otherwise would not have been possible for them. What they could not yet have known is how much was actually entailed by the statement that bringing about our salvation was possible for God to do.

God has done far more than to give us the power to live according to his rules, but he has freely substituted Christ’s righteousness for our flawed attempts. We do not have to produce our own accomplishments of having lived up to the deep total commitment that would be necessary if everything depended on our own righteousness. Jesus knew that we human beings cannot meet all of he requirements. He had once more demonstrated our inability to live up to all of the implications of the Law, but he also knew that he was getting close to the time of his death and resurrection, which would turn things around.   

Look at the sequence of passages in this chapter. If you have followed me this far, you should not find it surprising that in the very next section Luke once more refers to an occasion when Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection. The gospel writer knew more than the people about whom he was writing. Luke knew that we can now receive salvation by grace through faith and don’t have to undertake the impossible effort of making ourselves acceptable in God’s eyes.

The instincts of our fallen nature may push us into thinking that we must make ourselves worthy of God’s grace. But the gospel proclaims the fact that God takes us unworthy people, imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, adopts us into his family, and presents us with the inheritance of eternal life as a gift.

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Wednesday, September 24th 2014

23:21

Palm Reading -- A Different Version

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: exhausted

Another multi-day entry, written last evening (Tuesday) and completed tonight (Wednesday); and it only comes under the "diary" heading. I need to mention that I have fully recovered from the pseudo-illness caused by the immunizations and am thankful for any thoughts and prayers.

And now we head back into the remote past. Here’s a part of an entry on this blog of July 23, 2005,

Big project today was to go to Ball State Library to find sources on post-modern references to Gödel's theorem for the paper I'm writing together with nephew Michael. Ran into the usual snag with parking. The payment machine was out of service but that didn't keep them from issuing me two tickets. I stopped by campus police and got them straightened out.

Yes, this blog has been running since way back then, though at present the public archives no longer go back that far. Also, I realized yesterday when I went to Ball State Library, that this was my first time on those premises since that occasion. As I went into the stairwell of the parking garage, there was no payment machine in the spot where a broken one had sat before, just some covered-up wires. However, the wall bore a large sign directing me to one of the other machines, whose existence were unknown to me nine years ago. I take credit for that sign as a part of my personal legacy.

It really shocked me when I realized how long it had been since I had been to BSU’s library, though there just hasn’t been much of a reason to go there for the things I’ve been working on. The occasion for this visit was that I needed to find some English translations in print for an article I’ve been working on. I have all the German sources at home and made my own translations, but the editor suggested including references to the corresponding English versions. I found most of them and will supply them, even though they frequently don’t say precisely the same things as the original German.

Having overcome the aftereffects of the shots, this morning was devoted to going to the hospital lab and giving them a few gallons of my blood for routine tests as a part of the wellness program. In the afternoon I did some work in the yard, including digging up two tree stumps, and I found myself too pooped afterwards to do the serious writing I had intended to do.

This evening June and I had supper at Taco Bell and then went to a certain department store, part of a well-known national chain, to buy some varieties of dirt, which were stacked in bags in front of the store. It still strikes me as weird to buy “dirt,” but of course its not “just dirt” but “top soil” and “planting soil.” June also picked up one plant to replace the dead ones I had dug out, and we went to the checkout counter to pay for it and for the bags of dirt we wanted. The usual procedure for buying this kind of material these days is that one names the item and quantity one intends to purchase, and the checkout person scans a sheet with barcodes for the various products. The customer pays for them and then pulls up with his or her vehicle and loads the bags, with help by store personnel if necessary. In many places they check your receipt to make sure you didn’t take the wrong stuff or a greater quantity than you paid for, though here in North Central Indiana they tend to trust your honesty. However, the procedure didn’t quite work according to the ideal model this time.

Palm ReadingAs June was reciting which bags of dirt she wanted to buy, the young lady at the desk couldn’t make her barcode sheet work, mostly because it was two years old, and the products and prices had changed. (Were we the first people all year who wanted to buy soil and mulch at this store?) Since, of course, the sale required the barcodes, the check-out lady called for the evening store supervisor, another young lady, though not quite so young as the other one, closer in age to June and me perhaps. She had a blue ballpoint pen ready and wrote down our list on the inside of her hand. Then she left the store to check the barcode numbers and prices from stacks outside. It took her a while. When she returned she had added all of the relevant information to the list on her hand. She then read off the numbers to the check-out person, who punched them into the register; we paid, loaded up our little pick-up, and moved on to other endeavors, all the while wondering whether they would have to go through the same process again the next time somebody wished to buy a bag of mulch. As alluded to above, things are different here in rural North Central Indiana. They probably use a different color of ink for writing on their hands in other parts of the state.

Tomorrow I have an appointment with Dr. W, my movement disorder specialist. Given the time of driving to Indy (leaving a good margin in case of heavy traffic), a waiting period that can be a little lengthy, the initial examination by a nervous medical student, the actual session with Dr. W, and finally driving home, these appointments pretty much consume the entire day—in energy if not in time.

The memorial service for June’s mom in Michigan is coming up fairly soon, and I hope to get in another post either right before or immediately afterwards.

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Sunday, September 21st 2014

21:02

Childlike Faith

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Sick from

Sorry to dwell on this topic, but that pneumonia shot has really walloped me. The arm is still swollen and hurting, though at least it is now at a point where I can put ice on it without going through the roof. I don’t remember ever having this strong reaction to a vaccination, not even when I worked as orderly in hospitals and received the occasional gamma globulin shot. Every so often, because of certain exposure risks, we needed to get one of those, which are supposed to be famous for their unmistakable as well as enduring presence at their site of delivery. Each worker was called into a little room, where he had to remove the lower half of his clothing, assume “the position,” and receive the shot in the part of one’s anatomy usually reserved for sitting. I’m using “he” on purpose because, obviously, I have no direct knowledge of whether nurses and nurses’ aids received the same treatment. Interestingly, since then I’ve gotten gamma glob shots several times before going abroad, and at each of the more recent occasions they just stuck it into the arm.

Anyway, I don’t recall ever having a shot making me not only feel a little unwell, but downright sick. I certainly realize that it’s neither flu nor pneumonia, and that it won’t last as long as either one of those afflictions, but in the meantime, pseudo-flu and pseudo-pneumonia are quite the bother.

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 18:15-19

v. 17: I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.(HCSB)

It makes sense that Luke should follow up the parable of the tax collector in the temple with this reminder. Both have simple faith as their subject.

Sometimes I don’t quite understand the disciples. People were bringing their children to Jesus so that he could touch them as a sign of blessing. But the disciples sought to stop these little encounters, and they even scolded the parents. Maybe they were afraid that Jesus would become unclean in the process, as though they still hadn’t learned that Jesus was well able to take care of himself. Maybe it was just a nuisance for them to direct the parents and children to Jesus. Perhaps they were just plain crabby as most of us get from time to time.

Jesus showed a different attitude. He invited the children to come to him. He made a little speech, which he closed with our key verse for today. The only way you can enter the kingdom of God is if you welcome it like a little child.

We must distinguish between “childish” and “childlike.” At that, I’ve discovered that a lot of scholars of religion in the nineteenth century were clueless as to the capabilities of children. They thought that the earliest human religion was a primitive, childish view of the world in which people lacked the facility to distinguish between what is a living being and what is not. They supposedly could not tell the difference between make-believe and reality. I don’t recall ever knowing a child like that. What they were describing was the difference between healthy children and adults on the one hand and psychotics on the other. Children are not childish in this contrived sense. They don’t live in a world where they think that speaking to a piece of wood will get them stuff. They have to be taught such things.

 

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Saturday, September 20th 2014

23:03

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Pretty crummy; though nothing serious.
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Dr. Who

Yesterday I got my annual flu and pneumonia shots, capping off a week that left a lot to be desired in various aspects. As a result, today I feel awful and my right arm is swollen and hurts whenever I move it. Last night it was both arms. So, I won’t be playing any music tonight at Cowboy Church, and that makes me sad. Actually, I should be happy that this is merely a minor reaction to a vaccination rather than the flu itself.

Here is something I wanted to mention a little while back, but didn’t get to, mostly because I haven’t been able to get to posting blog entries. As I said, it’s not been a good week. I just wrote two short articles for an upcoming reference work, about 1,200 words each, both of them dealing with topics of global proportion. [Interestingly, the contract from the eventual publisher specifies that one may not reveal anything about the upcoming anthology, neither its content nor that a work of its specific nature is slated to come out eventually, so I can’t tell you any more about it. Competition among publishers appears to have attained a new level. But that’s not relevant for now.]

What I’m thinking of here is the process I had to go through of squeezing information that really deserves an entire book into two-and-a-half pages, and what a helpful exercise doing so is in becoming a better writer. I realize, of course, that for many of my readers who are students, the challenge is to spread out your verbosity in order to reach the required 9 ½ pages that count for a ten-page paper. I understand. Nevertheless, I’ll still use an abstracted version of you for my foil. I have spent more than three decades reading beautiful constructions such as:

“Upon studying the teachings of the Buddha it is revealed that he held the tenant that to live is suffering.”

I have deliberately included some additional common problems in this horrifying example (and please remember that you do not have to wear the shoe if it does not fit). First of all, if the Buddha had held a tenant, he would have been guilty of unlawful confinement. A “tenant” is the resident of a dwelling; a doctrine is a “tenet.” It comes from the Latin tenēre—“to hold”; thereby rendering “holding a tenet” redundant, but I can’t change that.

Second, the lack of parallelism between “to live” and “suffering” is grating. Either “living is suffering” or “to live is to suffer” would be okay.

Third, even though a sentence in the passive voice may sound more “official” or "academic" to you, it’s actually very clumsy. I once told a class that I would give them some extra points on a term paper if they had no passive constructions in it. Only one person out of twenty or so made it. I did allow the expression “so-and-so was born" since that’s pretty much the only way one can state this matter without invoking metaphors.

But none of these issues are my most important point. Why not just say:

“The Buddha taught that to live is to suffer.”---?

For those of you who may be wanting to improve your writing style, I suggest the following idea. Go through your paper and eliminate all the unnecessary words. Let passives be unused and let conjunctions and transitional phrases only be allowed where they are absolutely necessary. – Whoops! Sorry. Use the active voice and allow conjunctions and transitional phrase only where they are necessary. --- You may surprise yourself how much clearer and cleaner your writing becomes once you stop burying your ideas in an avalanche of unnecessary vocabulary.

Another way of making this point is by saying: Don’t copy the style of my blog when you write serious papers. I'll have more suggestions some other time if anyone should indicate interest.

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 18:9-14

v. 9: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. (HCSB)

Just as with the last parable, Jesus told his disciples exactly what his point was. He directed it to those who were proud of their own righteousness and considered everyone else to be inferior. In the parable, the Pharisee and his prayer illustrate this attitude. Amy-Jill Levine in her notes on this passage in The Jewish Annotated New Testament attempts to make the case that not only was this Pharisee just as justified before God as the tax collector, his righteousness may even have been of benefit for the sinner. I’m afraid that such an interpretation doesn’t hold up in view of Jesus' introduction. The Pharisee is presented in a bad light.

Pharisee and Tax CollectorBut please hold on! As I have stated before, not all Pharisees were necessarily similar to those whom Jesus reproved and labeled as hypocrites. I am really sad that in our common parlance the words “Pharisee” and “hypocrite” have become synonymous. Yes, Jesus certainly lashed out at some of them for hypocrisy, and, since it was Jesus who berated them, they must have deserved it. But don’t forget about the Pharisees who warned Jesus to travel in a different direction in order to avoid Herod Antipas. Remember Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Look at Rabbi Gamaliel and his wisdom as it is displayed in the book of Acts. Keep in mind that Pharisees also became Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Furthermore, aside from a Christian perspective, please recall the major division among the Pharisees, identified as the two “houses”: Bet Shammai (the conservative group) and Bet Hillel (the more liberal one). A number of the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees recorded in the gospels could only have occurred between him and the followers of Shammai because the strictness reported about them would not fit the disciples of Bet Hillel. The fact that Jesus called some Pharisees “hypocrites” does not give us the right to apply this term universally to all Pharisees and their descendants. Even if we disagree with them, that doesn’t make them hypocrites. We cannot see the inside of the person the way Jesus did. Jesus would not have said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20) if all scribes and Pharisees were unrighteous hypocrites. Levine is certainly right in saying that we should not be praying “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee.”

That said, having made it quite clear that he was addressing those pious folks who trusted in their self-righteousness, Jesus presented this picture of an imaginary Pharisee who fit the description. Please note that in his prayer the Pharisee gave thanks to God for his standing as he recited the vices that he did not manifest: he was not greedy; he did not see himself as unrighteous; he did not commit adultery, and—best of all—he was certainly nothing like that tax collector praying in the corner over there. If the Pharisee had left matters there, we could still put a fairly positive construction on his prayer because he appeared to give credit to God. However, he went on to inform God of some of the good things he was doing that went way beyond what was generally required. He fasted twice a week, whereas Jews are actually only required to fast once a year at Yom Kippur. He also gave God a tithe of everything he received; doing so was vastly in excess of the law of the tithe in the Old Testament (ignoring the fact that some Pharisees even tithed the weeds in their gardens, as pointed out by Jesus).

It is in this recitation of his virtues and his supererogatory deeds that the problem comes to the surface. Sure, he thanks God for allowing him to be such an exemplary person, but he is really giving himself credit for his piety, even as he acknowledges that God made it all possible. In a Christian doctrinal setting we have here a good instance of the widespread heresy with the world’s ugliest name: Semi-pelagianism. This wrong-headed belief states that we could not be saved apart from the grace of God, to be sure, but that the grace of God enables us to do the works by which we can then justify ourselves. Just to nail down the important distinction: God’s grace enables us to do good works, but we do them after we have already been justified thanks to his grace alone.  

I don’t imagine that for the tax collector as Jesus depicted him this was a matter of correct theology. He turned himself over to God, sins and all, because he was convinced that it was only on the basis of God’s divine mercy that he would escape the divine wrath. He knew he was a sinner. He had nothing to bring to God; no virtues, no good deeds, let alone actions that went beyond what the law required. He trusted in nothing more than God’s forgiveness—and as a result went home justified. His sins were forgiven, whereas those of the self-righteous Pharisee were not.

It would be a violation of the basic principle of interpreting parables if we added any further story line or theology to the event Jesus depicted. In other words, this is not a passage to support a particular view of justification and repentance. It simply says that those who trust in their own righteousness cannot attain to God’s standards and will fail at justifying themselves, whereas God accepts those who come to him without any pretense that they deserve anything.

Worm's EyeI’ve preached on this passage a couple of times (at least), and I entitled it each time “A Worm’s Eye’s View of Faith.” Here is the reason for that weird title. It goes back to a hymn written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “At the Cross,” which begins as follows in Church Service Hymns (Winona Lake: Rodeheaver, 1948), #301:

Alas and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote his sacred head
To
such a worm as I?

Chances are you won’t find that last line in any more recent hymnals. People don’t want to be thought of as “worms,” and, consequently, what you are more likely to find is an expression like this: “Would he devote his sacred head to sinners such as I?”

There is something to be said against the simile likening humans and worms. To the best of my knowledge, worms do not live in a state of fallenness and rebellion against God. As far as I know, worms do not sin. So, maybe we should apologize to worms for lowering them to our level.

If pressed on the matter, I’m going to have to confess that I don’t like the idea of being a worm either. Just to mention one reason, I don’t appreciate their down-to-earth lifestyle.  However, I’m afraid that in some cases the rejection of the simile has another reason. It’s very hard to stay away from the notion that God has brought about the plan of salvation because we are worth saving. Let us remind ourselves of the real state of affair as depicted in some Bible passages.

The apostle Paul begins his litany on the state of human beings in Romans 3:10-12,

There is no one righteous, not even one.
There is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away;
all alike have become useless.
There is no one who does what is good,
not even one.

I'm leaving out what follows; Paul drew on his literary creativity (and OT citations) to give us a rather graphic picture. Without understanding that we are totally unworthy of God’s grace, the Lord's Good News becomes watered down. It is precisely because we are from birth in a state of rebellion against God that the gospel is so amazing. Romans 5:18,

But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!

This statement concern salvation history, but it also fits our own experience. When we are still unrepentant sinners, God has already done all that is necessary for our salvation now. Finally, this idea goes back to the Hebrew Scriptures themselves (Deuteronomy 7:6-8):

For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord was devoted to you and chose you, not because you were more numerous than all peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the Lord loved you and kept the oath He swore to your fathers, He brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

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